As MEZCAL becomes the world’s trendiest spirit, we travel to Oaxaca in search of its origins and authenticity…
All too often ignorantly dismissed as tequila’s “smoky cousin,” mezcal remains one of the most nebulous and misunderstood spirits in the canon of alcohol. The mythology of Mexico’s indigenous Zapotec people tells of a lightning bolt striking an agave plant, releasing its cooked and enhanced juices for the people to enjoy ever since. To this day its divine origins explain why indulging in mezcal does not make one drunk (in theory) but rather brings one closer to god. Even the agave plants themselves are fundamental to indigenous life: Dried leaves used to thatch homes, stalks and stems with which to sew and hunt, and fibers for clothing and rope come from some species. No wonder its magical juice is also said to be imbued with powers of healing.
Walking the streets of Oaxaca city, the sense of authenticity is impossible to miss; antiquity and primitive spirituality bubble from the cobblestones. Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, and also home to the largest percentage of the Zapotecs. A visit during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the homage to those who have passed, and the ancient festival’s connection to the great unknown — never mind the spectacular costumes and villagers dancing in the streets — radiate a vibe like you’re on a beautiful but alien planet.
Visiting Oaxaca’s palenques, or primitive mezcal distilleries, only strengthens that feeling of terroir. The clay ovens and mule-powered tahonas crushing agave strike a stark contrast to the gleaming modern tequila factories just a couple of states away. Mezcal can only come from this nation’s arid soil; you get the indelible feeling its plants are the Earth’s gift to the people.
For nearly half a millennium, mezcal has been a fundamental manna of the country’s indigenous people, yet it was tossed aside as provincial or even a lesser swill by the uninitiated. But in less than two decades that perception has changed dramatically — not only in the Instagram-worthy bars of Mexico City but across the planet. By now, dimly-lit mezcalerías have taken root in culture capitals across the globe; but recently even smaller towns and villages are sprouting dedicated temples of agave. Since 2009, mezcal sales in the U.S. have exploded nearly 10 fold (from fewer than 50,000 to 445,000 cases, equal to US$90 million in revenue, in 2018). No other spirit comes close.
Think of this as a primer to the spectacular holy nectar — the how, what and why. But it’s critical to note that as agave acolytes spread to the far corners of the world and sales skyrocket, mezcal’s popularity brings with it both wild benefits and unexpected challenges to those who have been conjuring this spirit for around 450 years. Here are the basics…
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEZCAL
Deriving from the Nahuatl words metl and ixcalli (“cooked agave”), mezcal was historically a catchall term used across Mexico for any spirit distilled from agave (or maguey). Historically, this has included tequila for hundreds of years, but the denomination of origin (DO) laws scripted in 1974 finally defined tequila in a more specific manner — only distilled from blue agave in five states, centering in Jalisco — from the larger mezcal category. Twenty years later, mezcal carved out its own rules: distilled only from varieties of the agave genus, in several states centring on Oaxaca. The new DO drew a thick, controversial line in the desert sand between mezcal and the much more popular tequila.
From there things get pretty wild. More than 200 types of agave grow worldwide, but fewer than a quarter or so can be used to make mezcal. Production varies immensely from village to village, mezcalero to mezcalero, palenque to palenque. The terrain in many areas is so rugged and remote that nearby hamlets are cut off from one another, creating pockets of deeply insular culture. Plant species, length of fermentation, type of still and fermentation vats, number of distillations, airborne yeasts, soil conditions, and climate are all variables in the alchemy of a mezcal maestro.
The wild variety of variables in the mezcal algorithm creates a polychromatic stew allowing for arguably the most far-flung flavour profiles of any single spirits category. In fact some experts claim that mezcal is the largest DO in the world. There are processes and agaves that yield delicate notes of chocolate and mint; others are herbaceous and piney, or fragrant with bursts of orange blossom. If you stop at “smoky” you’ve totally missed the point.
“Agave spirits are a beautiful rainbow that I’m excited to look at,” notes Arik Torren, co-founder of Fidencio Mezcal and importer of a portfolio that includes several agave spirits under the Fidencio Spirits banner. “As you travel through Mexico you see big variations on all of these influences which result in a wonderful opportunity for exploration.” This multiplicity results in a wide swathe of product. In 2020 alone, Fidencio Spirits will feature 20 producers, and 24 unique species in its portfolio including agave and sotol (distilled from desert spoon, a plant related to but not agave) using 18 unique types of stills. “Mexico,” Torren gushes, “is amazing.”
If you love that copita of mezcal in your hand, cherish it — you’ll probably never taste it again. Because of the artisanal aspect of the spirit, the alchemy of the maestros and the various wild card elements, it’s nearly impossible for the same batch to ever be exactly replicated. And that ephemerality is part of the potion’s sorcery: Espe-cially in comparison to corporate spirits that have been formularised to death, mezcal is, for now, anyway, closer to an esoteric art than to a science.
“We believe the history of our family, the legacy of their past and present work, proves mezcal is not based on a chemical or botanical study but rather in our observations of nature every day,” argues Graciela Angeles Carreño, who is from the fifth generation of a family of mezcaleros and the general manager of Real Minero. “The challenges are with ourselves: perfecting the knowledge they left us, constantly questioning what we do [and] why we do it.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE MEZCAL
Of course there are agave-based spirits not distilled in states included in either the tequila or mezcal DOs, which further expand what were once all collected under the mezcal banner. The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) commenced certification operations in 2003 to set some order to this madness, to ensure mezcal’s continued quality and protect its producers.
“I disagree with most of the application of the denomination of origin,” states David Suro Piñera flatly. “The problem isn’t necessarily about who the DO is protecting, but rather, who it is not protecting. The focus of the DO should only be on protecting the interests and well-being of the producers.”
Having opened the Mexican restaurant Tequilas in Philly in 1986, Suro Piñera’s agave obsession led him to start importing rare and small-batch mezcals, including acclaimed labels like Mezonte, Siembra Spirits (of which he is founder and president) and Don Mateo de la Sierra. Now Suro Piñera takes the health of the agave personally. He elaborates that DO rules for mezcal were essentially copied and pasted from those of tequila, and fears the same corporatized standards that adulterated a once-great spirit could do the same to its so called smoky cousin. “That,” he argues, “is the wrong direction.”
Cinco Sentidos’ founder Jason Paul Cox, whose delicious spirits cannot be labelled mezcal because they lack the CRM’s blessing, describes bureaucratic interventions like forcing the distilleries he sources from to modify their recipe, or endure visits from CRM inspectors as a nuisance for his producers. “The last thing I want to do as a brand owner is to force a mezcalero to change a centuries-old family recipe in order for their mezcals to comply with some arbitrary certification standards,” he explains.
“Some of these producers have been distilling for over four decades,” Cox points out. “Just because their spirits may not comply with a lab test doesn’t mean that they aren’t exceptional.” At the end of the day the industrialisation of a traditionally artisanal activity needs to be carefully strategised — both for the preservation of spirit’s quality and for the livelihoods of the maestros and families that preserved this art form for nearly half a millennium.
A GUIDE TO AGAVES
Some silvestre, or wild agave, can take up to 35 years to mature so sustainability is certainly an issue — especially as these more rare (and expensive) plants are over-harvested and/or poached. Entire books can be written on the subject, but many labels like Ilegal, Montelobos and others are pledging to use only cultivated agaves, while others have policies of replenishing three or more agaves for every plant harvested. Award-winning Sombra Mezcal favors sustainability efforts that go so far as upcycling agave fibres and byproducts into bricks for building homes; Banhez is a cooperative owned by more than 35 mezcalero families themselves, meaning they pilot their own futures.
With dozens of agave varieties used across Mexico to create traditional mezcals, the colour palettes attainable from these plants is kaleidoscopic. Espadín is the most widely cultivated and therefore popular (and sustainable), although Montelobos has flourished with tobalá as well. When you create an ensamble, or blend of two or more agaves, the palate blossoms into even wider spectrums of flavour.
All which is to say there are a lot of magical, mind-meltingly delicious agave distillates worth hunting for like the yeti. There is no magical formula for divining a good mezcal, although maestros can discern a lot about quality and ABV just by shaking the bottle and examining las perlas, aka the bubbles, like reading tea leaves.
THE FINE PRINT
Certainly there is quality in larger mezcal brands, with resources available to invest great time and energy into producing the finest nectar. So while it is critical to support the small artisanal mezcalero, don’t let that stop you from enjoying a sustainably sourced espadín from a nationally distributed label. But one thing many mezcaleros argue for, whether artisanal or high-volume, is promoting transparency in the industry — both holistically and in labelling.
Many brands have unofficially united in a pledge to clearly state the most pertinent info on their labels, and this is something to look out for when perusing unknown bottles on a shelf. Pay attention to elements like: who (distiller, family); what (agave species, type of still, mashing style); where (village or city, state); and how much (quantity produced). Other details like cooking process, fermentation, and postdistillation adjustments may also be displayed.
While this level of transparency certainly is not a flawless guarantee of quality, chances are that if producers are willing to be this forthright, then they consider their product a badge of pride. ■
Text by NICOLAS STECHER